Famonize -- It's kind of like playing FarmVille in real-life. You get to engage with the farming process -- and directly control the methodology your produce is grown with. The service is orienting itself as a solution to unsafe, chemically altered vegetables and foodstuffs on your dinner plate. Farmonize incentivizes farmers towards safety by paying them for the method of production used (staying away from pesticides, in particular) rather than the end product. The subscription fee is around 7,000rmb a year and every week, Farmonize sends you your harvest. Generally about two and a half kilograms of four or five varieties of vegetables. Last week, SmartShanghai visited Farmonize's founder Roger Mu at his office in a Naked Hub to learn more about the service. He's a good-humored guy who likes to use analogies a lot. Accompanied by some home-made radish pickles, our conversation began.
SmSh: As a customer, how do I know the food I get from Farmonize is chemical-free?
Roger: The way we do it is to incentivizing the right kind of behavior. Our model is to not sell the products -- not be the middleman, or wholesaler or retailer -- and to incentivize the farmers to listen to what we tell them to do and pay them for their labor. We are the agent of the customer, and the customer is also who we have to optimize for. What we do is provide the advice, we visit the farmer, we know how to interface and talk to them because we have a farming background, and we go out there and we give updates to make this connection very smooth.
It's the same thing like getting your visa. You can have an agent to do your visa, or you can just do it yourself.
For vegetables, many superficial metrics, like the nutrition profile, and the taste, are extremely hard to measure. But the nutrients you use to grow them -- the food that you give to the vegetables, [scientists] understand very well. And those are the things people judge the safety of vegetables by.
SmSh: Your customers I believe are mostly expats, how do they communicate with local farmers?
Roger: I would say we have about 60% expats and 40% locals. A lot of people that we service can speak Chinese on their own. So it's not a matter of "can we communicate or not" but the willingness -- "do I want to meet this person?" And if you want to, we have farmers that speak English. These people are former office workers, they are not the stereotypes of what you have in your head.
Our people are mostly people who have chosen to do farming, and who have sacrificed a lot in their lives to do this. And as a result, they really believe what they're doing. We don't have to convince them to not use chemicals, whether we work with them or not, they're not going to use chemicals, that's sort of their own thing. We are trying to build a positive example to show other farmers who are using chemicals that there is another way. But we have to prove it to them. The transparency extends to the farmer side as well, we tell them how much these things cost, how much we're paying them. And to be very clear about these things.
SmSh: What do you think are some of the biggest problems in our food supply chain?
Roger Mu: I would say pesticides use. Pesticides, if you use correctly are actually not that dangerous. They are designed to break down in the sunlight if given the time and used correctly. For example, if you use pesticide on a product and you leave it out under sunlight for three weeks, go back again you test it, most of it will be broken down. But the problem is in following the rules to give it enough time to break down. Now, farmers aren't paid to follow the rules, they're paid for the product itself. Their products need to meet the superficial, physical characteristics that people use to judge vegetables to be sold at market. But this doesn't take into account the nutrition or the long-term health effects on people's body.
SmSh: What about the contaminants from the air, soil, and water, and what are some ways to address that issue?
Roger: There are a lot of things that are polluted, definitely. It's more about understanding what you are afraid of. If I am afraid of something, I go out there and find out about it: is this a thing that I need to actually be worried about? In terms of food, you need to understand if it actually absorbs this pollution. If you are worried about these things, you need to figure out what are the things I should worry about more.
They also do livestock. Even turkeys...
SmSh: In weather like this -- really cold in Shanghai and even colder in Chongming, it's going to affect how many vegetables I can have, right? How are you going to solve the consistency problem?
Roger: Certainly. One thing you can do, which is something we should be doing all the time anyway, is eating with the season. Our method is, and this is going to sound strange to you -- "necessarily inefficient". We're giving people the experience of having their own farm, which is basically like having your own backyard garden. Each vegetable has its time frame, which is what we handle on the operational side. We talk to the farmers and estimate what comes out during each week so you can get a steady supply of things. We are aiming for a majority of a customers demand, roughly 60 to 70 percent.
One way of making this more acceptable for people is to understand what are the actual vegetables that have a lot of pesticides that I need to worry about, leafy vegetables are one of them, and things like tomatoes and cucumbers they are very sensitive and don't have many defenses. There's a list you can find which basically tells you the top 10 fruits you can eat without worrying about the pesticides.
Photos from Farmonize.
For more information check out Farmonize.com. In the future, they're planning to build a platform where people, including farmers, can find them and apply to their programs. You can sign up through their WeChat (QR code on their website).